Beauty's Law

by The New Republic | March 12, 2008

The Flowers of Evil
By Charles Baudelaire
Translated by Keith Waldrop
(Wesleyan University Press, 196 pp, $24.95)

I.

Just over one hundred fifty years ago, in the summer of 1857, Charles Baudelaire published Les Fleurs du mal, his first collection of poems. The book's fate in France is well known. Of the few critics who reviewed it, most were dismissive. Some called the poems obscene. State censors--still smarting over their failed prosecution of Flaubert for Madame Bovary earlier that year--brought charges against Baudelaire for offending public morals, and after a swift trial, six of the 101 poems were found guilty of "excessive realism." An expurgated edition appeared in 1861. By then the poet was already suffering the nerve damage associated with advanced syphilis, which he had contracted some twenty years before. By 1866 the disease had robbed him of the power to write and to speak. He died in 1867, paralyzed, senile, broke, largely ignored by the literary establishment of Paris. He was forty-six years old. The six poems were banned in France until 1949.

By the time of his death, Les Fleurs du mal already had a second life in England. Tennyson is supposed to have read it and found Baudelaire "shocking" but "a moralist in his way." The Rossetti brothers bought a copy of the rare first edition, and Swinburne--in the mid-1860s England's most famous young poet--promoted it tirelessly in the press. As Patricia Clements records in Baudelaire and the English Tradition, Swinburne's verse elegy to Baudelaire, "Ave atque vale," led the young Oscar Wilde and thousands of other English readers to the poems. Perhaps not coincidentally, it emphasized Baudelaire's interest in lesbians and sexual transgressions, though in acceptably vague terms: "Sin without shape, and pleasure without speech." By the 1890s, Baudelaire's name had become synonymous in English with decadence. He was the single greatest influence on the poets of the Yellow Book and the Rymers' Club. It is impossible to imagine the British fin-de-siecle without him.

Until the 1920s, there existed no full English translation of Les Fleurs du mal. Michael Field (the pen name shared by the lovers Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper), Lord Alfred Douglas, and other Victorians translated individual poems, but anyone who read the whole book read it in French. Over the last eighty years, though, translators have made up for lost time: one critic counted eleven new English versions between 1987 and 1998 alone. Even so, most English-language Flowers of Evil are selections (although Les Fleurs du mal is not a long book), and few have won any kind of following. Baudelaire remains a presence in our literature thanks, still, to the widespread teaching of French in high schools. He must be the one foreign poet whose work is published, more often than not, in bilingual editions.

Several peculiarities make Baudelaire's poems hard to translate. For a start, there is the unprecedented variety of personal information contained in Les Fleurs du mal. The collection includes intimate poems to Baudelaire's mother, graphic fantasies of murder and rape, love poems, allegories, ekphrases, observations of street life, gothic nightmares, reported conversations, classical idylls, religious travesties, prayers, satires, quest-poems, poems about cats, poems based on faits divers, a long poem about old women glimpsed on park benches, poems about gentrification, poems about the smell of a lover's hair. It is hard to approach an inner life from so many angles and emerge with anything like a coherent whole. Yet Baudelaire's style is coherent in the extreme. He sounds like the same person from poem to poem. Even more than other poets, Baudelaire demands from his translators a guiding sense of what he--and, to a large degree, modern poetry--is all about.

 

The attempt to translate Les Fleurs du mal has produced heroic feats of interpretation, most notably Walter Benjamin's unfinished Arcades Project. For Benjamin--who published his own translations from Les Fleurs du mal into German in 1923--the poems revealed so much about the urban mind in action that to render them accurately required nothing less than a new history of urbanism itself. Although The Arcades Project was still in note form in 1940, when Benjamin committed suicide to avoid capture by the Nazis, the standard German edition runs to 1,354 pages. Benjamin considers the rise of mass society in the Second Empire not as the background to Baudelaire's career, but as the implicit subject of his work. Even at their most personal, his poems struggle to make sense of photography, crowds, large-scale prostitution, mass transit, mass marketing, artificial lighting--key technological facts of modern life; and because for Baudelaire these are all new, he perceives them more acutely than we do. To understand him, then, we must grasp our own world at the root. "The uncommon difficulty one encounters when approaching Baudelaire's poetry," Benjamin writes, "can be summed up by the formula: in this poetry, nothing yet is outdated." To put it another way, Baudelaire treated poetry as a kind of old- fashioned technology. For him the poet had a clear duty to face new developments in culture and society. If these raised the question "Why bother writing poems?", the question was neither trivial nor extraliterary. The question was itself a sign that the poet was paying attention.

Baudelaire wrote poems as if poetry was dead. Poets who did not share his sense of lateness held no real interest for him. (Of Hugo, then in Jersey, Baudelaire wrote that "he has managed to bore the ocean itself.") For Baudelaire, the resort to poetic language was an act of melancholic rage. His metaphors make others' look like garden ornaments. In Les Fleurs du mal, the Ideal "gnaws at debauchees," Hope "beats timid wings against the wall like a bat," Evening "pads up like an accomplice." It was Baudelaire who invented this kind of thing. Elsewhere he looks forward to striking his mistress "like a butcher felling an ox" and, in another poem, to waving her fragrant hair "like a handkerchief" under his nose. In a poem that clearly left a deep impression on Wilde and inspired "The Ballad of Reading Gaol," a woman's severed head sits on a bedside table "like a ranunculus."

These breaches of decorum occur throughout Baudelaire's book. Since he was known primarily as a translator of Edgar Allan Poe, his critics liked to call such passages americanismes. ("The imbeciles deny me everything," he wrote to his mother, "even a knowledge of French.") Refusing to flatter the reader's good taste, they cater instead to a deep instability--a craving for sensation, any sensation--that Baudelaire considered the dirty secret of modern life. As Benjamin pointed out, Les Fleurs du mal is the first book of poetry for people who do not like poetry. Underneath the "filthy menagerie of our vices," Baudelaire writes in his verse prologue, "Au Lecteur":

Il en est un plus laid, plus méchant, plus immonde!
Quoiqu'il ne pousse ni grands gestes ni grands cris,
Il ferait volontiers de la terre un debris
Et dans un bâillement avalerait le monde;

C'est L'Ennui!--l'oeil chargé d'un pleur involontaire,
Il rêve d'échafauds en fumant son houka.
Tu le connais, lecteur, ce monstre délicat,
--Hypocrite lecteur,--mon semblable,--mon frère!

Or as Carol Clark translates it in the reliable and elegant Penguin Selected Poems:

There is one uglier, wickeder, fouler than all! He does not strike great attitudes nor utter great cries, but he would happily lay waste the earth, and swallow up the world in a yawn.

It is Boredom!--an involuntary tear welling in his eye, he dreams of scaffolds as he smokes his hookah. You know him, reader, that fastidious monster--hypocrite reader, my fellow-man, my brother!

Baudelaire's ennui craves violence, melodrama, escape. This underlying hostility and indifference to other people, to real life, is the basic environment of Les Fleurs du mal. And this feeling, which Baudelaire calls "spleen," is one of the few emotions that he never questions in himself--whereas poetic feeling is as suspect as poetic figures of speech.

 

Beau Brummel, the ice-blooded Regency dandy, was one of his heroes. From boyhood on, Baudelaire was rarely out of debt to his tailor. Reduced to stuffing cardboard in his shoes, he went out in spotless shirts. As a critic, he elevated le dandyisme to an artistic ideal. The contemporary poets and artists who mattered to Baudelaire were those who championed form for its own sake. His own handling of rhyme and meter is conservative even by the standards of 1857. (One of his poems is in medieval Latin.) Although he introduced the words for bus, train carriage, and gaslight into French poetry, his core vocabulary is the restricted, abstract French of Racine and Corneille. (Les Fleurs du mal is full of adjectives like "adorable," "charmant," "terrible," "superbe"--the lymph of classical French, for which English, with its highly specific nouns and verbs, has no equivalent.)

Baudelaire's rhetoric is classical, too. He loves antitheses. Sometimes these come through in translation, as in Clark's gloss on the sonnet "L'Albatros": "Ce voyageur ailé, comme il est gauche et veule!/Lui, naguére si beau, qu'il est comique et laid!" "See the winged voyager, how clumsy and feeble he is! So beautiful a moment ago, now so comical and ugly!" More often this on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand quality is a matter of sound, not sense. Take the first lines of the sonnet "Correspondances": "La Nature est un temple oùde vivants piliers/Laissent parfois sortir de confuses paroles." The words mean something like "Nature is a temple where living pillars now and then breathe tangled words." In the French, however, each stressed syllable creates or resolves a tension in the pitch of the line. Baudelaire seems to be weighing contrary ideas and resolving them. He has the sound of logic. This aspect of Baudelaire's verse reminded Eliot of Alexander Pope, while the great French critic Pierre Jean Jouve located Baudelaire's poetics in "the tension between terms"--terms that are, themselves, commonplace. (Think of the tautly casual buttons on Brummel's jacket.)

The tension between wrongness and rightness--between americanismes and dandyisme--makes sense to us now. Such tensions are integral to our idea of modern art. But it was impossible to render in late Romantic English verse. The first full translation of Les Fleurs du mal, published in 1925, is an instructive failure in this regard. The translator, Arthur Symons, used the idiom of the 1890s as a way of working back toward the French. It was also the idiom of Symons's heyday, before mental illness undid him as a poet and critic. (Like Robert Lowell in the 1950s, Symons seems to have translated Baudelaire in part as a kind of psychotherapy.)

Modernist critics, Eliot chief among them, complained that Symons had revived a decadent cliché: Baudelaire the sensualist. In hindsight, Symons's larger problem is a refusal, on aesthetic grounds, to take Baudelaire at his word, especially when it comes to sex. In the poem "Les Bijoux," for example, Baudelaire describes a moment early in his affair with Jeanne Duval, the creole actress who became his mistress in the early 1840s and remained with him, off and on, for twenty years:

Et son bras et sa jambe, et sa cuisse et ses reins,
Polis comme de l'huile, onduleux comme un cygne,
Passaient devant mes yeux clairvoyants et sereins;
Et son ventre et ses seins, ces grappes de ma vigne,

S'avançaient ...

The French is straightforward, but Symons--who wrote well about Baudelaire--is defeated by his own sense of what does or does not belong in an English poem:

And her arms and her legs, her reins and her thighs' spices
Undulated, and nothing more divine is
Than, in mine eyes, visions of her separate vices;
Her breasts and her belly, grapes of my vine where my wine is.

When Baudelaire writes that Duval shines as if with oil, undulant like a swan, the mixed simile sounds awkward and untranslatable to Symons. And so he simply omits it. "Ventre," which means "belly," is also a standard poetic word for female genitalia. Symons has no such word at his disposal, hence the Groucho Marxian "vine where my wine is." And so on, until he has removed so much from the quatrain that he is forced to borrow filler from other poems, specifically the business about Duval's exotic origins and her waywardness, her "spices" and "vices."

These are problems of taste and diction. But there is a deeper confusion at work in these lines, one that troubles not just this translation, but many others since. What is the translator supposed to make of all that gazing, of Baudelaire's "serene and clairvoyant" eyes? Why won't Baudelaire touch Duval? The fact is that sex in Les Fleurs du mal is often a matter of physically hurting a woman or refusing to touch her. Discussions of Baudelaire's sexual guilt tend to leap over what sex actually meant for him and his lovers-- but that is precisely the subject of the poems. He never made peace with his urge to hurt women in bed. Similarly, he idealized his frequent sexual impotence ("the more one cultivates the arts, the less one gets hard-ons"), but he never got used to it or stopped writing about it. You can think of these preoccupations as maladies of the soul or as psychological disorders--translators have leaned in either direction, and quoted Baudelaire to their purposes. Both views encourage the translator to distort or to explain the poetry, especially when under the pressure to make meter or rhyme.

Baudelaire's last years with Duval were spent nursing her. She, too, was dying (as his letters make clear) of tertiary syphilis. For this poet, the connection between sex and death is not abstract. Neither is the connection, constant in Les Fleurs du mal, between compassion and physical disgust. Psychoanalytic readings of the poems have always seemed beside the point. (How much can analysis add to our picture of a man who tells his mother he has "loved her passionately" from early childhood?) The poems are instinct with self-knowledge. And so translations of Baudelaire tend to sound more clever, more introspective, than the originals. Baudelaire looked in the mirror and saw a set of facts. We are the ones who wonder what they mean.

 

II.

Over the last century, the tendency has been to translate Baudelaire in a more and more colloquial voice--as if by making him less formal, we could make his meaning more plain. Keith Waldrop's The Flowers of Evil goes far in this direction. It may come as a surprise to readers who know Waldrop's own poetry, which is dense and allusive, or the versions of experimental twentieth-century poets that have made Waldrop one of our most respected translators. His Baudelaire is talky, even folksy.

As Waldrop writes in an introduction, there has never been a consensus as to how Baudelaire should sound in English: "There have been versions in rhyme and meter, in blank verse, in free verse, in prose.... The choice that is not available is 'in the original meters,' French and English meters being incommensurable." This may stretch the point, for there have been relatively few free-verse versions of the great book. Clearly, many translators have felt that French and English meters have at least something in common. What is true is that very few poets have made one formal solution seem preferable, or even workable.

The obvious exception to this unhappy rule is Richard Howard's translation, which appeared in 1982. Howard pays close attention to what he calls Baudelaire's "private register," his moments of quiet--as, for instance, in the sonnet "Recueillement," from 1861. Waldrop, working from the last edition overseen by Baudelaire himself, does not include this poem in his Flowers of Evil, but it exemplifies Baudelaire's stripped-down late style, and it has wrecked one translator after another. To see this, we must first have the poem in the original:

Sois sage, ô ma Douleur, et tiens-toi plus tranquille.
Tu réclaimais le Soir; il descend; le voici:
Une atmosphère obscure enveloppe la ville,
Aux uns portant la paix, aux autres le souci.

Pendant que des mortels la multitude vile,
Sous le fouet du Plaisir, ce bourreau sans merci,
Va cueillir des remords dans la fete servile,
Ma Douleur, donne-moi la main; viens par ici,

Loin d'eux. Vois se pencher les défuntes Années,
Sur les balcons du ciel, en robes surannées;
Surgir du fond des eaux le Regret souriant;

Le Soleil moribond s'endormir sous une arche,
Et, comme un long linceul trainant a l'Orient,
Entends, ma chere, entends la douce
Nuit qui marche.

The first five words give some idea of the difficulties that this poem holds in store. Baudelaire addresses his "Douleur," his Sorrow, and tells her to be "sage." Ordinarily sage means "wise," but sois sage is an idiom: it means "be good." The rest of the line means "and be more calm." Or: calm down. As usual, we know what the line says. The question is how it should sound. Over the years, as translators have tried harder to capture the everydayness of "sois sage," the poetic "ô ma Douleur" has proved more of a strain: "Peace, be at peace, O thou my heaviness" (Lord Alfred Douglas, 1900); "Lie still, my Dolour, let thy tossing cease" (Lewis Piaget Shanks, 1931); "Be good, my Sorrow: hush now: settle down" (Roy Campbell, 1952); "Calm down, my Sorrow, we must move with care" (Robert Lowell, 1961); "Be wise, O my Sorrow, be calmer" (Geoffrey Wagner, 1974); "Be patient, Pain, and tranquilised, at best" (Walter Martin, 1997).

 

The more colloquial these versions become, the likelier they are to suggest reasons--excuses--for a "normal" man to speak this way. So Lowell and Martin begin by introducing the threat of a breakdown, of unbearable mental strain. But Baudelaire happens not to be writing in "Recueillement" about convalescence or fear of madness or the desire to be numb. From the beginning he leaves himself open to sorrow, regret, tenderness. As later lines make clear, the point is not to deaden his sorrow but to sharpen its attention. The point is to say goodbye.

Only Howard makes the first line look easy. And not just the line--the entire poem. Rather than invent an English Baudelaire, someone who could believably be moved to speak this way, Howard invents an English in which speaking this way is the norm:

Behave, my Sorrow! let's have no more scenes.
Evening's what you wanted--Evening's here:
a gradual darkness overtakes the town,
bringing peace to some, to others pain.

Now, while humanity racks up remorse
in low distractions under Pleasure's lash,
grovelling for a ruthless master--come
away, my Sorrow, leave them! Give me your hand...

See how the dear departed dowdy years
crowd the balconies of heaven, leaning down,
while smiling out of the sea appears Regret;

the Sun will die in its sleep beneath a bridge,
and trailing westward like a winding-sheet--
listen, my dear--how softly Night arrives.

Howard breaks with tradition by abandoning rhyme. More radically, he frees Baudelaire from the obligation to be normal--in particular, to be straight--by Anglo-American standards circa 1982. His Baudelaire has no simple gender, because the inward self in postmodern American poetry has no simple gender. Like Auden and Ashbery--the latter a poet who talks to his various selves as a matter of course--Howard's Baudelaire speaks in a voice open to camp. He speaks plainly without being plainspoken. (Or solemn: Be good? Be wise? Behave!)

This sexual ambiguity is not the only secret to the success of Howard's Fleurs du mal. He is very good at line endings, the hardest parts of a poem to translate (and the best reason for translating verse into verse). His lines and his stanzas snap like Baudelaire's. When Baudelaire rises to eloquence, Howard supplies a convincing motive. When Baudelaire can mean one of several things, Howard favors a clear bold choice. His translation is above all a dramatic performance. Like a good actor, Howard is guided--within the outlines of the original--by what his own voice can do, and he makes it his job to come up with extraneous "business" that neither follows nor detracts from the words on the page. When Howard translates the line "Ma pauvre muse, hélas! qu'as-tu donc ce matin?" as "Good morning, Muse--what's wrong?" nothing depends on the reader hearing the first line of Leadbelly's "Good Morning Blues." The echo reflects nothing specific in the original poem, but it reinstates something playful about the poetry--the freedom that is always disappearing in translation, that needs to be put back in if the translation is to make any claim on us as a poem in its own right.

For all of these reasons, Howard's Flowers of Evil has rightly become the closest thing we have to a standard version. The translators of Benjamin's writings on Baudelaire--newly selected by Michael W. Jennings in The Writer of Modern Life, recently published by Harvard University Press--usually cite Baudelaire in Howard's translation. As exacting a scholar as F.W. Leakey admits its overall success. I am not the only reader my age for whom Howard's Fleurs du mal came as a revelation, not just of Baudelaire but of what a translator can do.

 

III.

And yet there are many things Howard cannot do, which is reason to welcome an intelligent new version of the great work. Unlike Baudelaire, Howard seems incapable of writing a bad line. He is too polished to follow Baudelaire into his extremes of directness and desperation. His Baudelaire maintains his poise even when laying into Duval:

You'd sleep with anyone at all, you slut!
(A clue to just how bored you are and just
how brutal boredom makes your soul.) To keep
your teeth incisive for this singular sport,
you claim a daily ration of ... fresh hearts!
Your eyes, lit up like shops to lure their trade
or fireworks in the park on holidays,
insolently make use of borrowed power
and never learn (you might say, "in the dark")
what law it is that governs their good looks.

The imagery here is mostly Baudelaire's, but the wordplay is Howard's own. The original is close to doggerel. Howard's witty enjambments and double entendres serve a purpose: they keep us aware of Baudelaire's verbal mastery (a purpose served in the French, as always, by rhyme and meter). At the same time, they soften the violence of the rant.

Ranting is one of the basic Baudelairean modes. His friends bear witness to his incredible tantrums. So do his letters. During the Republican riots of 1848, he exhorted a mob to shoot his royalist stepfather, General Aupick. More than once his arguments with Duval ended in blows. Baudelaire knew his own temper. He took pride in working so much of his own bile into Les Fleurs du mal. "It was made," he wrote to his mother, "of fury and patience."

Bile is hard to translate because often it reads like a loss of control, like a mistake. Poems such as the one beginning "J'aime le souvenir de ces époques nues," in which Baudelaire spends fourteen lines cataloguing the horrors of middle-aged bodies, rarely make it into selected editions. Of course Baudelaire's tirades are just that: tirades, carefully revised performances. Howard's translation stresses their theatricality. At the same time, they flirt with the limits of art. In their tone they can sound disconcertingly close to his letters--like this one, written to his mother about Duval when Baudelaire was thirty years old:

TO LIVE WITH SOMEONE who never shows any gratitude for your efforts, who frustrates them either through clumsiness or permanent meanness, who thinks of you strictly as her servant or her property, with whom it is impossible to have the slightest discussion of politics or literature, a creature who doesn't want to learn anything, even when you offer to give her lessons yourself, a creature WHO DOESN'T ADMIRE ME and doesn't even care what I'm working on, who would throw my manuscripts onto the fire if it made her more money than seeing them published, who got rid of my cat, which was the only thing in the whole apartment I had to distract me, and who brought in dogs because the sight of dogs makes me sick, who doesn't realize or else refuses to understand that to be very cheap, just for ONE month, would allow me, by granting me one momentary respite, to finish a big book,--is that possible? Well? Is it?

When Baudelaire and his mother were on good terms, he could fire off several such letters in one day: "Ancelle is a wretch. I am going to SLAP HIS FACE IN FRONT OF his wife and CHILDREN. I AM GOING TO SLAP HIS FACE at four o'clock (it's now half past two)." At four o'clock: "I shan't go to [Ancelle's house] today. I am prepared to wait until tomorrow for my revenge." That evening: "I've already discussed what I'm going to do with two other people. It's a very horrible thing to hit an old man in front of his family ... I must--at least-- go and tell him in front of his wife and children what I think of his behavior."

These letters are performances, too. Ideally a translation would preserve the family resemblance between them and the poems. Sartre, who quotes this exchange in his study of the poet, describes the pattern as "a perpetual fresh start ... against a background of dreary indifference." It is Baudelaire's most common means of reaching out from under the shadow of his ennui, of converting hostility into action, whether in verse or casual prose. "I have cultivated my hysteria," he wrote near the end of his life, "with enjoyment and terror."

 

Waldrop is keenly alive to both the enjoyment and the terror in Les Fleurs du mal. Baudelaire, he writes in his introduction, "is always pushing it a bit far at us ... It's not that he wasn't serious--but not only serious." Rather than dissolve this tonal ambiguity in witty versification, Waldrop aims for near-literal fidelity, using what he calls the "verset": "a measured prose that allows the sentence to dominate ... [modeled on] biblical verse, especially that of the Psalms, as translated in the early English versions, including the King James."

In other words, Waldrop translates Les Fleurs du mal into prose, one paragraph per stanza. It does not sound much like the Bible--but then neither does Baudelaire; and it has the virtue of letting Waldrop stick very close to the original words:

You would take the whole universe to your couch, lewd woman! Ennui makes your soul cruel. To exercise your jaws in this singular game, you need each day another heart off the heap. Your eyes, blazing like shop windows or yew trees lit for Christmas, put to insolent use a borrowed power--without ever realizing beauty's law.

This is an excellent rendition, economical, clean, strange. The last line of the stanza is as confusing in Waldrop's translation as it is in the French. Waldrop has no line-breaks or meter to worry about--the things that make verse verse, in French or English. More important, his "measured prose" does not have to sound like anything in particular, a person thinking or a poem being invented or even a level-headed paraphrase. Waldrop makes the most of his freedom. In his hands, the lines "Je laisse à Gavarni, poète des chloroses,/Son troupeau gazouillant de beautés d'hôpital" become "I leave to Gavarni, poet of the greensick, his tittering troupe of sick-list belles." "Greensick" may send you to your OED, and the whole thing may be too effortful to count as poetry. But it is clever, racy, and correct.

If Howard is best at capturing Baudelaire's private register, Waldrop is most trustworthy when Baudelaire goes over the top. Then Waldrop keeps his cool. He reports the French without adding anything and without sounding clinical. Take, for instance, in the end of "A Celle Qui Est Trop Gaie":

So some night, the voluptuous hour sounding, I would like to creep, cowardly, noiselessly, to the treasures of your person

to scourge your joyous flesh, to bruise your absolved breast, and in your stunned side to carve a broad deep gash

and then, giddying sweetness!
through those flashier, more beautiful, new lips, my sister, infuse you with my venom!

This is indeed the substance of what Baudelaire writes: "sein pardonne" means "absolved breast"; "vertigineuse douceur" means "giddying sweetness"; "plus éclatantes" means "flashier." Such straight equivalence is harder than it looks, in verse or prose. With Baudelaire, prose is often less help than one would expect, since it does not solve the problem of tone. Even Carol Clark--whose glosses on the Selected Poems are usually unbeatable--stiffens and interprets: "And there to punish your joyous flesh, to bruise your ransomed breast, and make in your surprised loins a large, hollow wound." Absolved breast, stunned side, a broad deep gash: where Clark pauses to explain, Waldrop takes the original in stride. It is a shame that Waldrop does not include the original poem--he includes none of the original poems--in his edition. To make his versions stand alone does them a disservice, for they are often as close as this.

The omission of the original poems is all the more frustrating in those passages where Waldrop decides to jazz things up. It may be amusing to translate the first line of "Spleen (I)" into diary-style: "The month of drizzle, the whole town annoying." But Baudelaire does not write that way, and this is not what he means by "Pluviôse, irrité contre la ville entierè." At moments like this, and there are too many of them, Waldrop seems to be making things interesting for himself. The same is true of the yawp he throws into "Au Lecteur":

there is one still uglier, meaner, filthier! Who without grand gesture, without a yawp, would gladly shiver the earth, swallow up the world, in a yawn.

Does the shout-out to Whitman really tell us anything about Baudelaire or how he sounds or how his poem works? Or is it meant to suggest kinship between Waldrop's own work and the versets of Leaves of Grass? Either way, the echo points to the lack of an agenda. It is hard to detect, in Waldrop's translation, the urge to burn back toward an original or to bring news of an old source. The question raised by his Baudelaire is not "Why bother?" but a more common twenty-first-century "So what?"

 

IV.

In 1927, reviewing Symons's Flowers of Evil, Eliot attempted to describe the writer whom he called "nôtre Baudelaire," the as-yet-untranslated Baudelaire of the 1920s. There is always such a Baudelaire, the one we know by his effects on the literature of our time. His true legacy outside his own language is not a set of poems, it is a style of mind. (In this he is indeed like Whitman.) If our own English could produce the sound of Baudelaire, his irony, tension, tenderness, range, and rage--his ugliness and elegance, his modernity--I cannot help thinking the result might sound something like Frederick Seidel. Consider his recent poem "Broadway Melody":

A naked woman my age is a total nightmare.
A woman my age naked is a nightmare.
It doesn't matter. One doesn't care.
One doesn't say it out loud because it's rare
For anyone to be willing to say it,
Because it's the equivalent of buying billboard space to display it,

Display how horrible life after death is,
How horrible to draw your last breath is,
When you go on living.
I hate the old couples on their walkers giving
Off odors of love, and in the City Diner eating a ray
Of hope, and then paying and trembling back out on Broadway,

Drumming and dancing, chanting something nearly unbearable,
Spreading their wings in order to be more beautiful and more terrible.

Here Seidel walks and notices something that Baudelaire habitually walks and notices--old people looking old--and with some of the same passionate mixed feelings. Yet the resemblances go beyond any individual poem. Reading Seidel is a way of learning to read Baudelaire. His work trains the reader to take seriously not just the private register, but also what is sinister, aristocratic, cruel, repetitive, even childish about his own poems, and by extension Baudelaire's--the very qualities that have embarrassed critics and translators since Eliot's day.

Our Baudelaire, like the Baudelaire of 1857, is a marginal figure--as Benjamin put it, "a star without an atmosphere," a poet of the highest powers and ambition shedding his light into a void. It is hard now to imagine any other way for a poet to be. Baudelaire has lost the air of immortality that attached to him (and modern poetry) fifty or even twenty-five years ago. It was always foreign to the poems. They do not believe in posterity. In this sense, they may speak more directly to us than to the generations who came between Baudelaire's time and our own. Baudelaire wrote with oblivion on his mind. It freed him, like the speaker of Seidel's recent poem "Rain in Hell," to embrace his art, and to persist in it recklessly, in the afterlife of the here and now:

The poem he was writing put
Its arms around his neck.

Why write a poem?
There isn't any rain in hell
So why keep opening an umbrella?
This was the song he found himself singing.

 

Lorin Stein is a senior editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux and the translator of Gregoire Bouillier's The Mystery Guest.

By Lorin Stein

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//article/books/beautys-law